Not Another Katrina

Thursday, October 25, 2007

IN THEIR vivid reporting yesterday on the conditions at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Post reporters William Booth and Sonya Geis didn't have to mention the horror that was the Superdome two years ago for readers to draw a comparison. The 7,500 evacuees at Qualcomm have cots and tents, plenty of water and a variety of foods, arts and crafts for children, crisis counseling, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and AA meetings for adults. In New Orleans, 24,000 people seeking refuge at the Superdome were bereft of food, water and hope.

President Bush's response to the country's worst natural disaster since the shame of New Orleans has a lesson-learned quality to it. His emergency declaration Tuesday freed up federal staff and equipment for the state. By that afternoon, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA chief R. David Paulison were on the ground. Yesterday the president approved a disaster declaration, which opens a flow of housing, small-business and other federal assistance, and today he will tour the area.

Some will be tempted to attribute the quick action exclusively to race. After all, San Diego County, where most of the more than 800,000 wildfire evacuees live, is predominantly white (66 percent) and well-to-do (9 percent poverty rate) compared to the mostly African American (67 percent) and poor (28 percent poverty rate) victims of New Orleans. But that would be simplistic.

Because of well-organized disaster preparedness planning at the state and regional levels and drills that are continually performed, California is considered the gold standard of emergency response. After devastating fires in 2003, San Diego County invested in the automated reverse 911 system, which this week urged San Diego County residents to evacuate. And Californians have something that Louisianans, in particular those in New Orleans, didn't have when they needed it most: leadership, in this case from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the San Diego mayor on down. That there have been just five fatalities in an inferno that has burned an area twice the size of New York City shows what can result from clear and coordinated leadership.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company